What is the Alexander Technique?

Definition of the Alexander Technique

TheAlexander Technique is a reasoned method of education based on a holistic observation of how you “use yourself”. It was developed and taught by Frederick Matthias Alexander, an Australian actor (1869-1955).

His method allows you to work on the way you use your mind and body in any activity.

It offers a quiet moment of presence to yourself and to the world so that you can become aware of your habits and question them. This allows you to choose not to go towards the unconscious habits that shrink the individual and alter the proper functioning of your body.

Regular practice of the Alexander Technique brings freedom of movement and thought. It improves your coordination and allows you to regain your verticality. The Technique is recommended to prevent discomforts that may occur due to misuse of yourself in everyday life.

So much for the somewhat formal definition I wrote some time ago for the old version of my website. 😉

But that probably leaves you with a lot of questions about the practical aspects of the Alexander Technique… Well, I’m not going to leave you wanting more, so let’s go:

Primary control: the relationship between your head, neck and back

F.M. Alexander discovered that a dynamic and balanced relationship exists between the head, neck, back and the rest of the body. He called this relationship primary control.

Depending on its condition, this overall coordination pattern can positively or negatively influence the quality of your movements and the balanced functioning of your entire body.

The problem is that over the years, most civilized human beings have developed bad habits that interfere with natural, balanced primary control.

In a way, the relationship between your head, neck, back and the rest of your body is no longer right.

The use of oneself, but what is it?

F.M. Alexander talks about theuse of the self to describe our usual patterns. Your movement habits influence the way your body functions and is structured.

This interdependent relationship between the use, functioning and structure of our organism is what makes the Alexander Technique so original.

Your goal will be to re-establish a dynamic and balanced primary control to reverse the negative spiral of repeated misuse.

Everything we do in this work is exactly what is done in nature when the conditions are right, the difference being that we learn to do it consciously.

F.M. Alexander

To regain an adapted muscle tone in all your daily movements

Here are some indirect effects when you rebalance your muscular system to find a better use of yourself:

  • A dynamic adaptation of your posture at every moment: the right gesture and the right position at the right time
  • Better coordination and balance
  • A significant reduction in pain related to the misuse of your body:
  • Freeing your rib cage and your breathing
  • Freeing up stiff joints:
    • hips, knees and ankles to free the legs and get ease of movement when walking and running
    • Freer arms, elbows and wrists, etc.
  • Reduction and better management of stress and certain depressive states(studies related to Parkinson’s disease)
  • Improved self-confidence
  • An improvement of public performances for speakers, musicians, actors, dancers, sportsmen…

Please see my article“The benefits of the Alexander Technique” for more information.

How do you learn the Alexander Technique in practice?

Everyone has different habits, so the Alexander Technique is usually taught in individual lessons. It is however possible to work in “workshops” with small groups of students. This practice remains more rare in the small world of Alexander Technique.

Some teachers also offer video conferencing lessons, especially since the Coronavirus crisis. This type of lesson tends to make the student more responsible in his practice. However, I would recommend them to students who already have some practical experience of the Technique.

Work in motion and on the chair

During a session, your teacher will guide you with his hands and verbal instructions to help you become aware of and stop your bad habits during daily activities such as :

  • sitting and standing up from a chair
  • standing or sitting
  • walking
  • picking up and carrying an object
  • any other activity that is part of your daily life
    • playing a musical instrument
    • working in front of a computer
    • using your smartphone
    • Tying your laces

As you will have understood, these movements are only a pretext to become aware of your postural habits and to question them.

Table work

In addition to this conscious movement work, your teacher will lay you on a table, legs bent, knees pointing to the ceiling and head under a small pile of books.

The advantage of lying on the table:

You won’t have to manage your balance anymore. You can think of table work as a “facilitative complement” to movement work to help you let go.

This position also allows you to restore some space between your intervertebral discs. Your spine will thank you! 😉

See my article: How an Alexander Technique lesson works for more information.

The paradox of learning the Alexander Technique

I really don’t want to disappoint you, but the Alexander Technique won’t teach you much that’s new. Except that you have probably long forgotten what you are about to learn.

The “layer” of bad habits you’ve built up over time has disconnected you from what you’ll learn in your Alexander sessions. Your sensations will tell you that all this will seem new to you, but in reality, underneath this apparent novelty, lies the absence of your habit.

That is to say, a bit of “nothing”.

But how pleasant and liberating this feeling of “nothing” can be!

You leave your lessons feeling lighter. All your movements seem easier: walking, running, dancing, sitting or standing… You feel as if you are as flexible as a cat. You have found a new balance.

The presence and awareness you offered yourself during the lesson made you available and opened your sensory channels. You feel more calm and aware in the moment. You feel you are a little more “yourself”.

Marjorie Barstow, who was part of the first teacher training group under F.M. Alexander’s direction, used to say to her students:

All you want is a little bit of nothing. The problem with you is that you are all looking for something. And that something is your habit.

Marjorie Barstow – Aphorism

During your lessons, your goal will be to make yourself available to unlearn what causes your muscular tensions.

Therein lies the paradox: the more you try to learn something new, the more it will hinder your learning.

Alexander often reminded his students:

Trying is only amplifying what we already know.

F.M. Alexander – Aphorism

Re-learning to distinguish between right and wrong

But if we unlearn. What is the purpose of the Alexander Technique?

Your bad habits can be so ingrained that what should be unpleasant has become… habitual.

And therefore normal.

The global way of using yourself has become the basis on which you judge what is good or bad for you.

However, over time, your tolerance threshold has adjusted.

That’s what’s dangerous:

If you no longer feel what is bad for you, you can no longer trust your sensations. Your only internal guide.

It’s as if your“inner compass” is out of whack and no longer gives you the North.

Habit recognition and faluty sensory appreciation

The aim of the first Alexander lessons is to make you aware of your unnessecary muscle tensions and the bad habits that cause them.

The further you go in this area, the more “trustworthy” your sensory appreciation will become.

And that’s exactly what you want: That your feelings warn you again as soon as you hurt yourself.

In this sense, the Alexander Method is a form of preventive rehabilitation.

I could almost say that you want to become as sensitive as“The Princess and the Pea”: as soon as discomfort arises, you must be able to feel it and deal with it as best you can. You then simply choose not to go in that direction anymore.

But how do you get your inner compass to really point north again?

With the help of his hands, your teacher will guide you towards new experiences.

As I said before, these experiences are very enjoyable. You will feel more ease and freedom in your movements.

Despite your distorted sensory appreciation, intuitively your body knows what is good for you and that is reassuring.

What is peculiar is that the reverse can also be true:

Although you will gain more freedom during your lesson, you may sometimes feel confused and a bit “disoriented” by your new experience.

This happens when there is a gap between what your body “knows” and accepts and what your mind is ready to accept in the moment.

The sensation is then very special, there is like a confusion that comes in.

It can even be pleasant and unpleasant at the same time.

The teacher will be there to remind you that this is part of your learning process and that you can trust your body. 😉

He has also been there, and if he continues to train professionally, he still sometimes goes through this.

A time out to readjust your sensations

Everything I have just described can only happen on one condition:

You have to learn to stop and let go.

This is how you make yourself available to the new “paths” that your teacher will suggest.

Alexander called this “downtime” inhibition.

And this is essential!

Your first responsibility as a student is to learn to :

Stop the wrong so that the right can do itself

F.M. Alexander

This time of inhibition will help you create new connections between your body and your brain.

That’s why you’ll feel so unique after an Alexander Technique lesson.

You feel literally pulled together, as if all your parts are harmoniously connected and coordinated with each other.

Imagine that your bad habits are part of a network of rivers:

  1. The first step is to stop and take the time to locate the “river of your habit” on the map.
  2. The second is to go there and observe what is going on. Experiment: is your habit bad or not?
    This is where the teacher will be a great help.
    It will help you realize what is really going on in your body.
  3. The third step: Stay calm.
    Take the time to stop your bad habit completely before you try to change everything right away.
    You dig little channels here and there to divert the river from your bad habit and see what other path would be most efficient to reach your end.
  4. Once you have chosen the best way, you will gradually dry up the old river of your bad habit and redirect the “water” to the new river of your new conscious habit.

Be careful! This does not mean that your bad habit will be completely gone.

The “riverbed” of your bad habit will always be present but the water will gradually flow into the new river of your new habit and, with practice, it will gradually become the main river.

That’s all I wish for you!

If you are in a hurry, under stress, under intense pressure or have been through a traumatic accident, the “deviations” that you have consciously put in place may blow up.

Your bad habits will then come back at full gallop. (Or rather in the form of a great flood if I follow my previous comparison! 😉 )

Of course, I don’t wish that for you !

A time out to choose a new direction

At the risk of repeating myself: it’s really the downtime just before your bad habit appears that gives you the opportunity to choose that new path.

The goal is not to correct a bad habit directly but to stop the old habit completely before even thinking about a new path.

The difference may seem blurry but in practice it is extremely important:
If you decide to make a correction without first stopping your bad habit completely, you are at risk to imagine your correction with the feelings that accompany your bad habit.

You will have the impression of choosing a new direction but in the end you will go straight to the goal, as before.

It’s a bit like asking an almost blind man to be the lookout on a pirate ship, he’ll point in one direction without seeing much.

At best, you risk a temporary improvement, at worst, you accumulate even more tension and defects in the process.

When he worked with children, Walter Carrington used to ask them: “Do you know the magic word? Not knowing what to say, they answered “no”.

And Walter would applaud them saying, “Bravo! You know the magic word!”

I think Walter was simply pointing out the importance of stopping to choose before you act.

The fields of application of the Alexander Technique are as vast as the number of human activities. And there are many benefits to practicing the Alexander Method.

Nikolaas Tinbergen was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1973 for his study of animal behaviour. He expressed the variety of benefits of the Alexander Technique well in his acceptance speech:

We are already noticing, with growing amazement, improvements and progress in things as diverse as high blood pressure, breathing, depth of sleep, overall “joie de vivre” and mental alertness, resilience to external pressures, and skill as refined as playing a string instrument.

Nilolaas Tinbergen, Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology

The different motivations for practicing the Alexander Technique

In his book Discovering and Practicing the Alexander Technique, Jeremy Chance brilliantly summarizes the three main motivations for taking Alexander Technique lessons:

  1. To teach you how to manage and treat chronic pain due to stress or repetitive daily tension.
  2. To help you achieve excellence in playing a musical instrument, singing, practicing a sport, acting, public speaking or any other hobby that requires presence and fine coordination.
  3. If you feel a little stiff and clumsy the Alexander Technique can improve your body awareness, coordination, carriage and confidence.

To this list, I would add:

  • Learn to live consciously in the moment for all your daily actions, improve your clarity of mind, your awareness and your quality of life.
  • Reconnect with yourself and get to know you better.

I hope I haven’t forgotten anything, but I’m not infallible… Do you still have questions about the Alexander Technique?

Feel free to ask your questions and opinions in the comments below. I look forward to hearing your feedback and discussing it with you.

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